While the dogwood tree displays attractive springtime flowers in the garden, dogwood bushes provide striking twig colour to add visual interest during the winter months. Bloodtwig dogwood (Cornus sanguinea), Tatarian dogwood (C. alba) and redosier dogwood (C. sericea) mature anywhere from 6 to 12 feet tall. Various cultivars produce twigs with a range of burgundy, red-purple, yellow-green or blood red tones. Trimming the bushes maintains size, removes dead tissues and encourages rejuvenation that produces new twigs with more intense pigmentation.
Pruning Time Frame
Prune dead, diseased or broken twigs in a shrub dogwood any time of year. The ideal time to trim or prune the bushes occurs from late winter to very early spring, just before new growth begins. Trim errant branches during spring and summer to shape the plant. Avoid heavy pruning during the growing season as you don't want to see blunt twig wounds or stubs when the shrub is barren of leaves in winter. Arbitrary hacking of dogwood shrubs creates unnatural, awkward silhouettes in winter when the plant is meant to look most attractive.
What to Prune
Gardeners have two options in annual pruning maintenance on dogwood bushes. The first option is the most straightforward and absolute: Cut back the entire shrub to 12 inches tall in late winter. New growth sprouts to form a balanced, bright twig silhouette by fall. Alternatively, cut back one-quarter to one-third of the oldest, least colourful branches to ground level in early spring. In subsequent years, continue to remove additional lots of branches so the shrub always has a supply of new, intensely coloured branches by fall.
Sharp hand pruners work well in trimming branches with a diameter less than 3/4 inch. If the dogwood shrub is large or branch bases are thick and woody, use a lopper. The lopper blades are larger and stronger and cut with the use of longer handles for added torque. Loppers readily cut through branches 1/2 to 1 1/2 inches in diameter. Branch bases approaching 2 inches in diameter require a pruning saw to make a crisp, even cut with the least amount of effort.
The Issue of Flowering
Novice gardeners may feel apprehensive to harshly cut back dogwood bushes since it may lead to diminished flowering. While true, the flowers on the three shrub species are tiny and in clusters on branch tips. They are not as boldly showy as blossoms on dogwood trees. If you wish to retain some flowers and develop a few small clusters of berries in summer, only cut back a portion of all branches annually. That allows new colourful branches to grow while the older remaining branches still flower and set some fruits. The grey dogwood (C. racemosa) produces lots of white berries, so this species is best allowed to always flower on some older branches each year.